Archive for Phyllis Allen

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Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2021 by dcairns

PAY DAY, continued…

The actual pay day bit of PAY DAY isn’t so hot. Charlie thinks he’s been underpaid, because he can’t count. Seems weird that we’re in 1922 and Chaplin is still getting his character wrong. We don’t think of Charlie as stupid. We presume him to be uneducated, but this business doesn’t seem to suit him, and anyway it doesn’t lead to anything funny.

Yay, Phyllis Allen! A woman who must have been a very good sport, given the way Chaplin always casts her. This is a one-minute, one-facial-expression by the Great Bone Face, playing Charlie’s shrewish wife. This is a rare case where Charlie’s hankering after Edna is actually adulterous, though we don’t know what at the time. The whole gag here is Charlie, out in full view, plotting how he can keep back the housekeeping money from his wife, who is watching every moment,ready to pounce and abstract the cash from him.

The Charlie of PAY DAY is a much more wretched figure than usual. The film can be seen as a fairly vicious condemnation of the working man under capitalism: he doesn’t organise his labour, he’s too busy indulging in the pitiable vices society allows him. The bitterness for once suits Chaplin’s biography, as the son of a man who drank himself to death. Charlie’s left enough drinking money to get thoroughly soused, and we iris out on him and his cronies setting the world to rights at closing time. And what cronies! John Rand, Henry Bergman, Albert Austin, Loyal Underwood, Al Ernest Garcia, and Syd. Is this Charlie’s last film as a drunkard? It has some of the best drunk action.

The coat! Charlie manages to get one arm into his overcoat but the other one goes into Henry B.’s overcoat, and Henry plods off, basically wearing Charlie. Next is a great bit with the cane. The cane is fantastically useful as a prop, as we well know by now. We can relate it to the jester’s bladder and stick if we like. This gag actually requires Charlie to LOSE his cane, so the gag had better be a good one if it’s to be worth it. It is, and it is.

Seeing Bergman struggle with his umbrella, Charlie helps. But what he hands back is his cane, and Henry, too pissed to notice, stands in the rain holding this futile object. As if this weren’t enough, Charlie is now wearing both of their coats. Henry’s miserable condition is funny enough for Chaplin to cut back to him, twice, just standing there like a putz.

This all reminds me somewhat of GOOD NIGHT, NURSE!, the Arbuckle-Keaton short best remembered for Buster’s blood-spattered appearance as a prototype of William Burroughs’Dr. Benway (thanks to Dan Sallitt, I think it was, for that comparison). But it begins with a full reel of a thoroughly guttered Fatty standing, just barely, in a torrential downpour. Impressively abject stuff. It doesn’t seem that likely that Chaplin would consciously imitate it… but then, he did steal the dance of the bread rolls from Arbuckle…

Charlie now has trouble with streetcars.The first one to show up is immediately swarmed by undercranked commuters, buzzing like flies, a rare instance of Chaplin using extreme accelerated motion. It’s like Nosferatu packing his coffin.

Meeting Henry again, Charlie regains his cane (of course, how could I have doubted this?) but loses both overcoats in his haste to catch the streetcar. This is all impressive night-for-night shooting — and unless Chaplin somehow diverted a streetcar into his studio, it seems like he’s intercutting his studio street with a real one, quite seamlessly.

David Robinson notes that PAY DAY was a comparatively brisk shoot, with no major hold-ups save a break when Chaplin caught cold around Christmas. A fairly clear plan, a rarity for Chaplin, enabled him to shoot the second half of the film first. I guess the plot of this one is so simple — basically work, drink, go home — the structure didn’t present any difficulties, and the business of coming up with business was something that came comparatively easy to the authentic comedy genius.

The last streetcar is so fantastically overcrowded it looks like someone pasted it with glue and flung men at it. Charlie loses his grip on it, tearing off another passenger’s trousers, after paying his fare. Here, Rollie Totheroh’s lighting is less successful — the tram is illuminated as if by a moving spotlight. I guess it could be the headlights of a car following close behind. And I guess no other solution would have been available unless you were going to light a whole street for night shooting.

Charlie, drunker than we would have thought, or can believe, rushes into a lunch wagon and grabs a hanging sausage, thinking himself in a streetcar holding a hand strap. Brilliantly, it’s Syd’s lunch wagon from A DOG’S LIFE, though Syd has modified his makeup from that film. Maybe this is the brother of the chap from ADL. I feel the gag, which is magnificent, is weakened a little by coming after some very vigorous athletic business from Charlie which makes me think he can’t be as drunk as he seems here.

Good bit where he tries to light the sausage.

Leaving his brother at the lunch wagon, Charlie meets… his brother, playing someone else. The shuffling of players is as bold as that in a Monty Python film (where it feels quite natural — it’s the OBSCURE OBJECT trick played over and over again).

Back at the Chaplin residence, Phyllis Allen is not quite “nursing her wrath to keep in warm,” in Robert Burns’ immortal phrase, but she’s asleep with a rolling pin ready in her hand, so she can wake up berating. A title tells us it’s five a.m. Charlie has been wandering lost, presumably, for hours, unless closing time was a lot later in the 1920s. Actually, since the Volstead Act had been in effect for two years, the whole thing may be an anachronism — but if we assume Charlie and his mates were at a speakeasy, closing time probably doesn’t apply so he might have left at, say, 4 a.m. On the other other hand, speakeasies probably didn’t encourage customers to gather, swaying, on the street outside. Let’s just agree this is Chaplin’s version of Los Angeles-London, where the pubs still open.

Not such a great backdrop. Quite detailed, but I think what lets it down is the way the building we see is square-on with the window, which is perfectly possible, even likely, but increases our sense of looking at a painted flat, and the large, featureless expanse of ground at the bottom. Charles D. Hall usually did better than this.

Inside Charlie’s flat is a far superior window view, though it seems to contradict everything about the previous one. Strictly speaking, the views of these two adjacent windows should be nearly identical. And, in fact, Hall seems to have painted over View #1, adding the roof corner to the foreground which vastly improves the sense of perspective and the compositional interest. The lighting also really helps this one.

The table laden with cats is a great, rather abstract gag. I like the fellow on the left who thinks he’s in an Ozu film. The cat infestation has cleaned up Charlie’s supper, but fortunately he’s come home with a huge sausage. Thus nature balances itself.

A tiny cat steals the massive sausage. I suspect a long balloon may have been substituted, otherwise the feat would be impossible. One is put in mind of those ants carrying burdens far heavier than themselves.

Charlie oiling his boots so they won’t squeak is an excellent gag, very him. In a sound film he could have fun deciding whether the oil works.

A cartoon gag — the alarm clock shakes as it rings. My first thought was that this was a necessary exaggeration, but it really isn’t — the bell atop the alarm clock is quite capable of showing us that it’sgone off. So Chaplin wanted the exaggeration — but it’s an unusual move for him.

The next gag — Charlie,undressing for bed, immediately goes into reverse so that he seems to be dressing FROM bed, gaslighting his wife into believing he’s been home for hours, was good enough for Steve Martin to nick it in THE MAN WITH TWO BRAINS, I believe. And I think Martin’s version might be better, because of the fluidity of the movement: Charlie oversells the idea of his being flustered, improvising desperately. I guess that’s his thing, whereas Keaton could do things like a man in a dream.

The threat of Phyllis is once again used for dramatic/comedic irony/poignancy, as she lurks behind Charlie, full aware of his latest imposture. Like John Lennon in Norwegian Wood, he “crawls off to sleep in the bath,” but like himself in ONE A.M. and A NIGHT OUT and CAUGHT IN THE RAIN, he finds the tub full of water. The movie, like those pervious ones, could have ended there, but Chaplin finds a flurry of variants — he turns on the hot tap so he can have a nice warm sleep, Phyllis catches him so he pretends he’s bathing, fleeing the scene he retrieves his last penny from under the doormat but she’s watching him, yet again. He ends on a furious closeup of Phyllis, gesticulating with a milk bottle, and the superimposed THE END is surely a more modern addition.

Vagabondage and Discipline

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , on June 15, 2021 by dcairns

David Robinson regards THE VAGABOND as a major step forward for Chaplin, and I guess he’s right. The title implies a development from THE TRAMP, and it looks forward to THE KID, A WOMAN OF PARIS, and others.

Robinson also says that Chaplin was virtually the last to realize how famous he’d become, but the opening shot of this one — the Tramp identified by his boots and walk alone — shows that he was at least somewhat aware of how iconic his costume and stance had become. Same with introducing himself from the rear in THE FLOORWALKER, but this is altogether more stylish.

The opening sequence is a bit of standalone knockabout, the kind of thing we see Chaplin doing more of in his feature films. Introduce the Little Fellow, get some big laughs, then start the story. Charlie is a busker — Chaplin played the violin for real, and would do so again in LIMELIGHT. At the orphanage, Chaplin had been beaten for being left-handed and as a result had become ambidextrous, but he played the violin left-handed and had the instrument strung accordingly, “with the bass-bar and sounding post reversed.”

When his friend Jascha Heifetz picked up Chaplin’s violin, he couldn’t play it. Chaplin demonstrated: ““You see! I am made inside out and upside down. When I turn my back on you on the screen you are looking at something as expressive as a face.”

Charlie plays outside a bar, but a noisy oompah band (played by all the firemen from THE FIREMAN) impress the customers. When he goes in to collect donations, he’s mistaken for a member of the band. Then the band send someone in and a fight breaks out. Oh, and here’s Leo White in his longest beard yet, playing a Jewish customer tempted by the ham. A bit of very mild Jewish humour to prepare us for the more dubious racial stereotyping later.

The set built for this sequence is very interesting — the long bar constructed as both interior and exterior, enabling a different kind of running battle. Chaplin’s loose approach to story — building it from rehearsal/improvisation — suggests he may have been hoping this sequence would lead organically into a larger story.

Instead, his next scene abruptly relocates Charlie to the countryside. Edna is “the gypsy drudge,” horribly mistreated by a crone — Leo White in drag! — and the gypsy chieftain, Eric Campbell in a straight villain role. The brutal whippings Edna is receiving suggest it’s miraculous she’s reached adulthood.

Charlie happens along and tries to cheer Edna up. His initial motivation seems to be profit, though why (a) he’d expect the ragged and miserable Edna to have money and (b) why he thinks he can impress the stereotyped Romany camp with his fiddling — coals to Newcastle, surely? — are moot points.

Chaplin, interestingly, was probably part Roma himself. Which doesn’t make his using the racist trope of “gypsies abducting babies” any better. He’s thoughlessly following a familiar plotline, as previously exploited in D.W. Griffith’s first short, THE ADVENTURE OF DOLLIE. Everybody seems to have believed travelling people routinely stole kids, or at least they found it a perfectly acceptable premise for a story, whether they believed it or not. Sigh.

Oh, and Chaplin has already introduced this theme with a short scene showing the very rich mother (palatial home — two women knitting). The cut from mother looking at little girl photo to Edna makes it all but explicit what the connection is, so the plot twist doesn’t come as a deus ex machina later.

THE VAGABOND has smoothed over the awkward changes in tone that Walter Kerr found so jarring and unresolved in THE TRAMP, though it’s still a little disconcerting to have Charlie walk into this scene of horror. Only when he starts to fight back against Eric and the rest of his gang do these tensions flow together into a coherent line of action. It’s very exciting when they do. But it only works if you can root for Charlie and forget about the racist assumptions underlying the scene.

Charlie up a tree stealth-bonking the Romany scoundrels on the nut, one after the other, until they’re all neatly laid out unconscious, is thrilling and funny. When he nudges one prone foe off the bridge, presumably into a watery grave, it seems to be an act performed in a spirit of neatness. This is what we mean by “pre-Holocaust comedy.”

Charlie escapes with Edna in a stolen caravan, an excitingly staged mini-chase. I think the comic-dramatic exciting chase, where you root for the hero against the villain(s), is fairly new to Chaplin. There’s some of it in THE TRAMP.

There follows a chaste idyll, the first of many in Chaplin’s films. In fact, Charlie washing Edna’s face is directly echoed in his fatherly ministrations to Jackie Coogan in THE KID — and it’s more appropriate there, too. This idyll is arguably TOO idyllic — it’s interspersed with Edna meeting The Painter (Lloyd Bacon, who played her father in the previous short), an idyll within an idyll. The painter isn’t very interesting, and it’s hard to see why Edna is so impressed with him. I mean, sure he’s cultured, but how good is he at killing gypsies?

The painting complete, it is shown — rather obviously a glazed photograph — in an art gallery, in Chaplin’s first really successful camera move, an elegant pull-back. And the rich lady, setting aside her knitting for a day out, spots the painting, and she and the painter ride out to the country so Edna can be retrieved.

The painter’s feelings aren’t much gone into. Having painted Edna as “the Living Shamrock” (owing to the oddly configured birthmark her mother will recognise) he would seem to have lost all interest in her, but now he’s excited again. Probably because Edna turns out to be posh, with a rich mother who lives in a mansion, wears elegant robes, and eats regularly. I’d suspect the painter of mercenary motives if he wasn’t so obviously a plot function with an easel.

Charlie is left alone. He tries kicking his heels to restore his spirits — it worked in THE TRAMP — but he is inconsolable. But, as she drives away in her mother’s limo, Edna has second thoughts. It’s a very nice shot, done in a real automobile, because we can see both Edna’s dawning romantic yearning, and the road stretching away through the rear window, showing the distance between the lovers inexorably lengthening.

But the car turns round, picks up Charlie, and the film ends with the open road but nobody on it. One might worry a little about the abandoned horse. One is more likely to wonder about the characters’ future, about how Charlie and the respectable folks are going to get along. It’s a question begged, but ultimately refused, by the endings of THE KID and CITY LIGHTS, which stop just before the questions become pressing.

Chaplin apparently considered other endings, including a gag finish where he’d try to drown himself, get hauled into a row boat by a passing woman, then throw himself back in when he sees she’s the unglamorous Phyllis Allen. I think we can all be grateful he decided against that one. But it leaves THE VAGABOND as an odd story that starts totally comical and ends totally serious, with little in the way of comedy in its last ten minutes. But it works — and one imagines this gave Chaplin additional confidence. However, his NEXT film refuses all sentiment, dispenses with the supporting cast, and pretty much leaves out the Little Fellow…

Auld Acquaintance

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2021 by dcairns

One last jaunt into Echo Lake Park, AKA the violently inclined idiot’s Forest of Arden.

Charlie is married to Phyllis Allen, Keystone’s own Marie-Dressler-Alike. It’s a seaside postcard marriage, the big, domineering woman and the henpecked little man. Phyllis has the sniffles, and Charlie, rather than being sympathetic, is mocking her for our benefit: he does a trombone mime, and pretends to blow his nose on her knitting.

Wikipedia informs us that the character names this time are Mr. and Mrs. Sniffels — possibly a Sydney Chaplin interpolation, as he rewrote the text and recut the action in much of his brother’s Keystone output at a later date.

Meanwhile (there are several meanwhiles in this) MABEL, we are told, ADMIRES HER HUSBAND AMBROSE. An extraordinary statement. Ambrose, of course, is Mack Swain, and there’s admittedly plenty of him to admire. Wires have not become crossed yet, but the mere introduction of wiring to a Keystone short promises that this will happen. 1914 audiences would be chuckling in anticipation.

A motor car enters frame. Mack & Mabel are enchanted by the gasoline-driven chariot. Their faces light up with religious awe. OK, so Chaplin needed to introduce an auto, and had to find a way to make it interesting (ignoring Sidney Pollack’s dictum, for the good reason that it hadn’t yet been formulated — Pollack wouldn’t be born for twenty years yet — “Let the boring crap BE boring crap”) so he has his lovers ooh and ahh at the mundane jalopy as if it were Hitler flying in at the start of TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. Instead, its someone called Joe Bordeaux and his crate promptly breaks down. Ambrose gets distracted trying to help, and Mabel is left alone…

A meting between Charlie and Mabel is now anticipated, but Chaplin pulls a fast one, instead he introduces a whole new character, “Mary, the flirt” per Wikipedia, played by the fetching Cecile Arnold. On seeing her, Charlie/Mr. Sniffels immediately distances himself from his slumbering spouse. Adultery, or anyhow a flirtery, is on the cards.

“It’s the story of a girl who is searching… searching… SEARCHING!” as Jerry Lewis will say in HOLLYWOOD OR BUST. Can Charlie help? HE WOULD BE DELIGHTED!

Scanning the area for whatever MacGuffin Cecile is hunting, Charlie’s eyes alight on her bottom as she bends to examine the lawn. A quick display of beaming innocence is produced when she catches him at it.

Charlie prowls after Cecile, leaving the snoozing Phyllis. It’s a little strange that he’s dressed as a tramp in this one, since his wife is clearly not indigent. Indignant, yes. But Charlie’s costume is now firmly established. It’s taken most of a year.

The plot is now thickened in a startling fashion as Glen Cavender abruptly appears, dragged up as some kind of dagger-wielding Turk in a fez. Cecile is with him, apparently. He stabs Charlie Sniffels in the arse, and that’s that dealt with. Charlie makes his unheard excuses and leaves.

Fleeing the dread Turk, Charlie now discovers Mabel, still waiting alone as Ambrose struggles to crank the stalled automobile, his capacious buttocks thrusting rhythmically upwards in a grotesque parody of the sexual act. Can someone recut Cronenberg’s CRASH, Guy Grand style, so that the characters are watching this on TV?

Chaplin is now composing in depth in a way that greatly enhances the visual interest.

The late John Belushi contrived to meet his wife by hitting her on the arm with an oar. Here, Sniffels, having tidied himself up a bit (a rare moment of near-pathos), thwacks Mabel across the rump with his cane — it’s up to us to decide if it’s deliberate — and then apologises. An introduction is made. Well, it’s one way of doing it.

Picking an imaginary thread from Mabel’s shoulder, Charlie demonstrates how pantomime may be used to further the gentlemanly art of bothering women. And gets a slap in the face. Things are going great.

Charlie inadvertently — it seems — hooks Mabel’s hem and lifts her skirt to expose a shapely ankle. In response to her outrage, he sternly spanks the crook of his cane, a fresh image, startling in its implications.

Mabel is outraged by all this. Charlie keeps trying to get fresh, and gets another slap. His character really is a repulsive little sex pest at this point. Ambrose has given up trying to crank that jalopy and comes to defend his wife’s honour. Except he’s too busy “getting acquainted” with Charlie — a new friend! — to listen to his wife’s complaints. So he leaves them together and returns to his solo cranking activities, a contented cuckold. He gets the car going and is offered a lift, leaving Mabel with the creepy little guy in the derby. This is getting kind of distressing.

Edgar Kennedy gets a laugh! Mabel called “Help!” and Edgar the brushy-moustached kop BOUNDS into shot. Not her shot — he’s just one shot to the right.

It’s funny because it feels like he’s just been waiting, coiled, in an unseen third shot just to the right of the one he springs into.

Then, defying the Kuleshovian imaginary geography that has us expecting him to cross into Mabel’s frame from screen right, he emerges in the background behind Charlie (more depth staging) so we can have British pantomime “He’s behind you!” poignancy/dramatic irony. Chaplin, the master of suspense.

Mabel now relaxes, encourages Charlie to incriminate himself, as Kennedy hovers menacingly behind him with truncheon erect and wagging. Charlie is overjoyed by Mabel’s new smiling responses. His quaint blandishments have borne sexy fruit. They always yield in the end! Very good slow burn response to the truncheon and then its owner. Kennedy is not only a slow-burner himself, but the cause of slow-burning in others.

They’re off! Konstable Kennedy pursues Charlie like an eager dog, lolloping round the bushes… Charlie indulges in some purely-for-fun buttock-piercing with a pin, even though this gains him nothing. But when a foe presents his backside, you have to either boot it or jab it with something sharp. Them’s the rules.

The chase circles dizzyingly around Mabel, with Charlie pausing to raise his derby — he is, after all, a gentleman, albeit a sleazy one —

This plot needs added astringency, so Ambrose dismounts the jalopy a mere shot away from Phyllis, now awake and back to her knitting. He drops his kerchief at her feet, accidentally. But now this is a tricky situation. Phyllis assumes this was a deliberate act, designed to allow him to check out her ankles. Embarrassing. And so much psychology going on in a plain americain wide shot. These wraiths of 106 years ago are still thinking thoughts and beaming them into our eyeballs as if we were all there, in the shade of a Los Angeles recreation area, two pandemics ago.

Ambrose inexplicably exacerbates his blunder by sitting down next to Phyllis, while a random dog photobombs the cast.

Evading the Kop, Charlie backs into the Turk, who then takes a mis-aimed blow to the fez from Kennedy’s truncheon.

All men are sexual nuisances, part 2: Mack is now pinching Phyllis’s cheek and capering on in nonconsensual fashion. The difference between Phyllis and Mabel is that when Phyllis hauls off and slaps you, you stay slapped. Now she’s yelling for a cop and Mack is reduced to a pitiful, whining schoolboy begging her not to get him in trouble.

Eyeline trouble. With all these tangled plot threads, it’s not too surprising when Kennedy exits Mack’s frame screen left and then arrives in Phyllis’s frame left, a feat requiring either a single-frame spin by the character or by the viewer’s brain. Still, Phyllis is able to sic Kennedy on Swain, and now both he and Charlie are fugitives from erotic justice.

Ambrose collides with the Turk, who again receives an accidental thwack from Kennedy. It’s called a night stick because it makes you see stars. Kennedy, realising he’s concussed a Turk by mistake, wallops him again on purpose just for being foreign.

Mabel meets Phyllis, and the #MeToo movement is born.

The Charlie blunders upon the scene and, after some more suspense, is presented to Phyliis’s new bosom buddy. Shock! Charlie goes weak at the knees. Then, luckily for him, some footage goes missing and when we rejoin the scene, Phyllis has been abstracted by Melesian jump-cut. Charlie runs off, and Mabel is alone at last.

Kennedy is still chasing Ambrose and thumping the poor Turk, if that’s what he is. Charlie has rejoined his wife and inexplicably (and disappointingly) escaped dismemberment at her hands. But now Kennedy has located Charlie. More dramatic irony type panto suspense — Chaplin’s favourite device here, along with the in-depth framing he’s discovered.

The runing about is getting repetitive but when Mabel introduces Ambrose to Phyllis, reprising the earlier meet-uncute that got Charlie in hot water, the device works nicely, building on our anticipation. And hopefully there won’t be any lost frames this time so we’ll see what happens. Not than much, actually. And we’re back to running and cowering in bushes. It’s looking like Mabel might go off with the big woman, as she just had in TILLIE’S PUCTURED ROMANCE, for sapphic consolation. Will Charlie and Ambrose do likewise? But first, Kennedy’s kosh at last finds its mark, clobbering each cranium, and the creeps are collared.

But before the can be konfined in klink, their wronged women plead piteously on their behalf. Kennedy is confused by the discovery that the woman molested by masher #1 is married to masher #2 who is married to the woman molested by masher #1. His brain is going in circles. He storms off to beat the shit out of Henry McCoy, who was there at the start as leading man in Chaplin’s MAKING A LIVING and is here again, bothering another lovely in another part of the park. THWACK! Ouch!

Realizing their lucky escape, the foursome congratulate one another (?) and the thing more of less stops. An above-average park romp that does show Chaplin developing some new visual ideas.